One Little Room, an Everywhere

A year after we lost the house, on a chilly summer day, my mother refused to get out of the car. That is the only sentence written in my journal. Mom refuses to get out of the car. We were in a dirt parking lot one block away from our old house. Neither of us had visited the house since it had been foreclosed upon one year earlier. I was 20. My mother was now living with my grandfather in a town forty miles away. I know now that I didn’t want to stay with her, but what I told myself then, in the car, was that I wanted to visit our next-door neighbors. I had it in my mind that I would not be seeing much of them in the future.

The first thing I noticed when I arrived was a man carrying a baby at the top of my old house’s driveway. He was the new owner. My neighbor Valerie waved to me from her porch. She had painted every piece of patio furniture canary yellow. She sat on a chair with a sheaf of drawing paper in her lap. There was a line of clothes that billowed in the wind. This wasn’t the first time that I wanted to be a part of her family. This time, though, I felt something dangerous well up inside me. It wasn’t jealousy. In that moment I didn’t want what Valerie had; I wanted for her not to have it. It frightened me. The feeling came and went like an image of a pop can flashed onto a movie screen, too quickly for me to know where it came from or whether it was real. I knew only that the woman who sat painting on an ugly chair was a woman with whom I did not want to spend the next seven days. My breath rose and fell as I walked up to her. We smiled at one another in a way that was friendly, but not as friendly as I would have expected, coming back to the town after a long time.

One night the new owners threw a party. I watched it from the window of my room in Valerie’s house. Men in Hawaiian shirts looked at a spiral of smoke curling up in the air from a grill. Women stood in dresses swaying in the wind and children ran barefoot on the grass and the mulch around the catalpa trees. Someone played an old rock album from a boom box on a picnic table that my mother and I had left in the yard. When the sun set, a woman came out of the back door with a white cake with candles for the man I recognized as the father. A thrum of drunken voices sang “Happy Birthday.” I told myself I would remember what I saw. One day I would write about it.

In that moment I didn’t want what Valerie had; I wanted for her not to have it. It frightened me.

I was staying alone in the room of Valerie’s daughter. Valerie was an artist and years ago had painted a mural of the neighborhood children on the walls of her daughter’s bedroom. The one who was supposed to be me stood turned away from the other children with a dandelion in her hand. She held the flower to her face and watched the seeds flow away in the wind. The other girls played with one another and with boys in a garden that looked like Eden. As a child, I hated that painting.

I was staring at the wall wondering why I had come. I wasn’t thinking about the past. I was thinking about the party. I imagined small acts of terror I could do to that house—breaking a window, spray-painting the walls, slashing tires. But no—I didn’t want to do anything violent. I only wanted to look through the window and see what of ours the family had kept, if anything.

I shut the back door softly behind me and walked across the gravel to a patch of grass under the dining room window. Heat rose sharply in my cheeks. I felt the same way I did as a child before I stole something. The inside of the house was dark. I waited to feel something piercing in my chest—some prickly violent unfamiliar pain, some feeling that I otherwise did not allow myself to feel, anger or hatred or resentment, that for once I could feel without fear of judgment.

It’s hard for me to say whether we would have stayed in the house if my father were alive. I’m not sure if it’s useful to play that game, to rewind the tape and play it as if he were alive.

Somewhere in the darkness a baby cried. A window must have been open because the cry wasn’t muffled. Upstairs a light went on and a pair of shadows weaved around one another on the curtain. The noise startled me. There was nothing unique about it, but for some reason it reminded me of a voice I knew. The air smelled of the lilacs that my father had planted for my mother at the foot of the porch years ago.

It’s hard for me to say whether we would have stayed in the house if my father were alive. I’m not sure if it’s useful to play that game, to rewind the tape and play it as if he were alive. My mother would not have quit her job to take care of me. She would not have lost what little savings she had. People we knew would die. Others would get married. A plane would still hit the towers. Not long after that, a war would start. The housing market would crash. But somehow it wouldn’t matter. Everything would fall into place. We would be fine.

I started back the way I’d come, careful not to cut my bare feet on the gravel, as I often did as a child.

It got light early in the summer, early enough for me to explore the neighborhood without fear of running into anyone. Before breakfast, I’d made it a rule to run around town. I had never seen our house in the soft pale blue light of morning. I’d had no reason to. I learned from Valerie that the father had a job at a hospital. He left before sunrise. One day when I was sure no one was home I went through the yard to jump into the pool. But the new owners had covered it with a tarp, an old broken tarp with a hole in the middle. I was walking to the edge when I saw on the concrete a small pool of blood around a dead robin. I used a catalpa leaf to carry the bird into the forest behind the field in my old yard. When I was a child, my mother and I played games in the forest, stumbling out the other side pretending to be explorers or time travelers who’d happened on a new place. My elementary school was on the other side of the forest and I pretended Mom was my sister and the other kids and parents were our long lost family. I was thinking about the game as I dug a hole in the damp soil. My mother was happy then.

During the time when my mother and I were moving out of our house, I bought a journal in which I wrote down everything I wanted to remember.

During the time when my mother and I were moving out of our house, I bought a journal in which I wrote down everything I wanted to remember. I didn’t write about my mother or myself or anyone else. Most of my entries were inventories of the objects that filled every room in our house. They reminded me of the long rambling genealogies of the Bible. Living room: red velvet couch, paisley chair, green Victorian loveseat with mahogany cherubs, wooden jewelry box I painted red and blue, framed wolf painting (Dad’s?). I was happy to think that I was producing something that only I would want to read. Something that my mother would care very little about. The fact that I had finally found a way to remember without inserting my perilous, naked, vulnerable self into the matter was a relief. Even if my mother found my journal, I was safe.

But after we moved I kept using it, mostly to record the fights I had with my mother. They were not diary entries, not really. They were transcriptions. My handwriting was messy. I wrote most of the entries as fast as I could in the minutes after I had stormed into my room. But the words that I wrote had the same icy coolness of my lists. I wrote our arguments like lines of dialogue.

I didn’t take out my journal until the last day, when the new owners had a yard sale. I recognized many of the objects as things we had left behind. The red velvet couch was on the curb with the other objects they were giving away. The woman told me to take anything I’d like. I found in the garage a mirror that had been there ever since I was a child. My grandmother on my father’s side had brought it from a vacation in France not long before she died. It was too big for any room in the house. I had forgotten it.

I thought suddenly of my father, whom I remembered dimly but didn’t know. My memories of him come and go like long bright squares of light that pass over a dark wall. What I felt, I think, was love.

I thought suddenly of my father, whom I remembered dimly but didn’t know. My memories of him come and go like long bright squares of light that pass over a dark wall. What I felt, I think, was love. I had no words to prime the feeling. I hadn’t kept a journal before he died, but whatever the feeling was, it remained. It came to me that my only memories of him were in the house, and I wondered if that meant anything—if one day I would wake up in a different place and find that I had forgotten to remember him because nothing and no one around me was reminding me to do so. That the tape I ran in my head from time to time of him throwing me in the air before bed or holding a pink afghan tightly around his shoulders on a hot afternoon, hours before an ambulance drove to the top of our driveway—that one day this tape would run out, and I would lose whatever it was that made me keep rewinding it. I wanted to keep missing him and I feared the day this would stop being so.

There was a crack in the middle of the mirror. I was staring at my figure, in shadow with the sun behind me. I reached to feel the cold glass. I wondered what about this day I would forget later on. As I heard my mother’s car pull into Valerie’s driveway, I touched my collarbone, and even in the darkness, I wished suddenly there were more of me.

I grew up in a middle-class neighborhood in Chapel Hill that is separated from Section Eight housing by one major road, its name recently changed from Airport Road to Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. If Chapel Hill were its own state, it wouldn’t swing like North Carolina. Not only are there Obama stickers everywhere, but every other car also has one of those goofy/clever “Coexist” bumper stickers on it. It seemed like all the parents I knew were somehow connected to either Duke or the University of North Carolina. Chapel Hill is a liberal enclave in a state that is barely in the South, depending on who you ask.
The first time I saw my brother weep from something that was not my fault was when he was in seventh grade. I was in the fifth grade, and I vividly remember feeling so frozen when he finally composed himself well enough to tell me what was going on. He told me that his classmates had called him an Oreo: black on the outside, and white on the inside. He warned me that they would call me that too.

The first time someone called me a nigger I was 12 years old. I was at a tennis camp in Winston-Salem. One of my fellow campers thought it would be a good idea to tease the golf campers, who stayed in the dorms next to us. One of the golfers took particular offense to this and threatened Morgan. When I stepped in to defend him, the golfer called me a nigger bitch—an overreaction so extreme it was almost comical. He yelled it over his shoulder, and ran into his dorm room, letting the door close and lock behind him.

“It is hard for me to explain, but let me put it this way: no frat boy has ever stopped me at the door to ask if he can touch my afro, because I don’t have one.”

I’d gotten into an argument or two before that, and definitely some more afterwards, but few fights have affected me the way this one did. I broke down like I never had before. I sobbed to the camp counselors, nearly incoherent, that it had all become clear to me.

I was wrong. It was not all clear. It took almost a decade for me to understand the golf camper’s words as the quintessential “nigger moment,” Professor Elijah Anderson’s name for a moment of acute, racially based disrespect. A nigger moment is when you are forced to recognize that you are on the outside, you are other. Ten years later I don’t feel that same intense pain anymore, but I pity the child that I was. While she might not have had the vocabulary to explain her shame, she realized early on that if you are Black, it does not matter how smart, rich, or well behaved you are—even the dumbest of white men can always, always reduce you to just another nigger.

Run-of-the-mill racism doesn’t really work that way anymore. Much of the racism I’ve had to explain to students at Yale is unspoken and unchallenged. I empathize deeply with the outcry from the people of color here. The events of the past few weeks are not minor slights that have been blown out of proportion. I can only speak for myself, but I suspect that for many students of color at Yale, the past few weeks have elicited a series of post-traumatic flashbacks, because that’s what this is, it’s trauma. It is the trauma of being reduced to one of the ugliest words in the English language, or of watching your older brother weep and knowing that you’re next.

Between twelve and twenty-one years old I put my head down and I worked hard to get to where I am now. Like most elite college students, I’m smart, but I’m not that smart. During high school, my peers always seemed surprised by how well I was doing. They would point out that I was the only Black person on the tennis team, and in my singing group, as if they were saying something insightful, and as if I were not already aware. I blocked all this out. If you suspect that some suppressed rage is coming up now, you are absolutely right.

if you are black, it does not matter how smart, rich or well-behaved you are—even the dumbest of white men can always, always reduce you to just another nigger.

At the same time, I am aware of my role in the systemic racism at Yale. I am Black, but my skin is more coffee- than charcoal-colored. My hair is relaxed, or chemically straightened, rather than natural. This was a conscious decision. I opted not to have natural hair because at a young age, I noticed that people responded better to me when I had straight hair. More smiles and more eye contact made the choice pretty simple. Because of my appearance (as well as my upbringing), it is easier for me to navigate predominantly white spaces than it is for others. It is hard for me to explain, but let me put it this way: no frat boy has ever stopped me at the door to ask if he can touch my afro because I don’t have one.

In the process of integrating into mainstream Yale, I distanced myself from many of the Black women on this campus. My freshman year I joined an a cappella group, and though it was never my intention to dissociate from the Afro-American House, conflicting a cappella rehearsal time gave me a perfectly good excuse not to go to Black Student Alliance meetings.

I attended the first Yale Black Women’s Coalition meeting my freshman year. I left the meeting knowing that I would not return. At the meeting, the women spoke of their frustrations with interacting with other students, both white and Black, but though I was only a few days into my freshman year, something in me whispered that this was not my place. I realize that I distanced myself from these women because we had different experiences, and I did not want to get close to their pain. I am ashamed to admit that I am also complicit in this system that has worked to oppress so many of us, complicit in that I knew there were problems, but I avoided them when they didn’t seem to affect me. White men who have felt so attacked the past few weeks think that I don’t sympathize with them but I do. I now know how it feels to realize you are not, in fact, one of the good guys.

The guilt isn’t productive. Eventually, we have to realize that. A lot of white people have asked me what they can do to be a good ally to the women of color on this campus and my typical spiel is that they should just talk about race. It seems small, but it is not, because white people can choose to ignore race. They are so afraid of saying something wrong when it comes up that they don’t address it. The result of this is that the vast majority of microaggressions I have experienced on this campus have happened in the past two weeks. I recently asked a white friend to come to a lunch to talk about race on campus. He looked back down at his computer screen and he waved his hand, saying, “I don’t wanna hear all of that.” In the moment I was hurt that he had just dismissed my problems, not with the intention of making them go away, but of making them once again invisible to him. The moment passed, and I questioned if it was justified for me to even be hurt. One of the key components of a microaggression is the uncertainty that comes with it, and a lot of times, the uncertainty comes down to one question: Am I overreacting?

White men who have felt so attacked the past few weeks think that I don’t sympathize with them but I do. I now know how it feels to realize you are not, in fact, one of the good guys.

I stopped questioning myself at that same lunch my friend refused to attend, where I met a Black freshman in my college. I was the only other Black student at the meeting, so I spent about forty minutes talking to my roommates and the faculty members who were there about racial tensions on campus. I tried to make it clear how amazing my close friends had been throughout all of this, supporting me, coming to events with me, and even bringing me food because they knew I had stopped eating. When I paused, the freshman offhandedly remarked that she had yet to speak to anyone about these issues. I nearly choked on my food. “You haven’t spoken to anyone?” I asked her. She shook her head and I don’t know if tears welled in my eyes first or in hers, but suddenly everyone in the room was crying, faculty included. I cried because I was ashamed that I had neglected the freshmen in my own college, who of course did not feel comfortable challenging recent friends in the name of racial justice. In her, I saw myself, thirteen years old in a supposedly accepting environment and yet still isolated, and still trying to explain to classmates why it was racist to start a White Student Alliance and call it the Kool Kids Klub. That is to say, I saw myself, thirteen years old and angry, screaming into a void.

Most white liberals do not want to believe that racism exists on this campus because the Yale they applied to was the same diverse wonderland that I was hoping to attend. They do not realize that a dismissal or a refusal to engage hurts more than any ignorant comment they could make. Black people constantly have to ask themselves, was I just rejected because the person did not like me, or was it because of my race? That uncertainty wears on you, makes you unsure of your place in the world, and ultimately takes a toll on your mental health. When I say that white people need to talk about race, to their student organizations, to their Black friends and their white friends, I’m not asking something small. I’m asking them to do something that they have never done before.

I can envision a world in which I think of my blackness and I don’t have to think of all the ways in which it makes me vulnerable, and others frightened. Many people have asked what we’re going to do when all of this dies down. Maybe by the time you read this it will have died down. People are afraid that all of the tears and the hurt will have been for nothing, and we will simply return to the status quo. All I can ask of you is that you let some of the stress and trauma of these past few weeks stay with you, because it will certainly stay with me. If in order to feel motivated you need examples of Black people getting discredited, attacked and killed in the media, there are many. This violence is bred from ignorance, and in the past few weeks, Yale has proved that a liberal arts education does not exempt you from ignorance.

These days I’m tired of crying. I’m tired of calling my best friend in tears, only to discover that he is also already crying. It is disappointing to have those on the outside of the issue misinterpret the campus climate. I just read a Facebook post by someone I assumed would be sympathetic, calling the March of Resilience a “pantomime of a protest.” I cannot fault this man for not being able to see my perspective because I suspect that he has been reading the same articles that I’ve been waking up to every morning, the ones that have been portraying my friends as “shrieking girls” and my fellow heartbroken students as “spoiled.” I may not be able to package my fury and the stifling resentment in a way you think is most productive, but if the alternative is doing nothing, then I’ll stick with what I’ve got. I am a cynical person, but I cannot be cynical about racism or equal rights. If I truly thought that it did not in fact get better, then I would have no reason to get up in the morning. It’s been hard, but here I am.

I hiccupped into the phone as hot tears spilled down my cheeks. My face burned and my voice caught in my throat as I tried to explain to my mom what I had just found out—the superintendent of the residential college I was living in as part of my summer job was refusing to let me move out of the roach-infested room. They were taking the word of the white girl in a suite with an empty room in another college. She admitted she didn’t actually know me, but still told them she wasn’t comfortable living with me. I was weary by the time this happened, crying from all the moments that the melanin that graced my skin was used to make me feel small and unworthy.

Those moments when I had to tell my teammates that yes, I can feel it when they put sticks, leaves, and rocks in the kinks that form my afro; that yes, I could feel it when they poured water on my hair; that yes, of course I can wash my hair; that no, the cloudy white liquid dripping from my hair while we practiced in a downpour was not my hair lactating but in fact, leave-in conditioner being washed out. Those moments when my coaches didn’t recognize me while leading recruits on campus tours because I changed my hair, and then tried to hide their initial recoil beneath a tight smile after I touched their arm in greeting. They would laugh in the moment, as if the fact that I became just another indistinguishable brown body to them as soon as we left practice were something that was humorous. Each time was as fresh and as raw to me as the abrupt end of the self-assured bliss of my childhood—when my five-year-old self learned that people could be afraid of my blackness. I remember standing beside a kiddie pool because the children of a family friend refused to let me come in—they were worried my black would come off in the water.

Those moments when my coaches didn’t recognize me while leading recruits on campus tours because I changed my hair, and then tried to hide their initial recoil beneath a tight smile after I touched their arm in greeting.

As a freshman I quickly learned that there were rules I needed to know to navigate college: to not put on the navy blue sweats provided by the track team before leaving campus for practice because people will assume I am a custodian and ask me to clean something for them; to not look too self-assured while browsing envelopes in the post office or people will assume I work there and demand I help them with something; to always have my ID card handy to swipe into residential colleges because people will shut the gate when they notice me walking behind them. I considered all these to be annoyances, unfortunate yet unavoidable aspects of my condition.

I let myself feel safe from the violence against Black folk that I saw far too often in the media—until I found myself on Yale’s campus, caught between a scared white man with a gun and two young Black men. The New Haven Police and Yale Police officers who responded that night spoke first to the white man, taking his claim of self-defense at face value. They waited nearly forty-five minutes to speak to the young men and me. No one on campus was notified of the incident that night, though it happened within one hundred feet of Morse and Stiles. It took days of pestering before the administration sent a tight-lipped email to the students, stating that the man with the gun had been banned from campus. I felt betrayed during my meetings with the administrators tasked with keeping campus safe; we spent hours debating the legitimacy of the threat posed by the man who drew the gun. The ambivalence of their response left a bitter taste in my mouth—they refused to admit that the man had posed a threat or had received preferential treatment from the responding officers. Administrators, apparently moved by my tears of frustration, offered up examples of experiences that helped them “get it”: traveling to Africa frequently and being the only white person in the room for weeks; going to a discussion at the Afro-American Cultural Center and being the only white person in the room, but recalling a distinctly pleasant surprise at how well they were treated.

Each time was as fresh and as raw to me as the abrupt end of the self-assured bliss of my childhood—when my 5-year-old self learned that people could be afraid of my blackness. I remember standing beside a kiddie pool because the children of a family friend refused to let me come in—they were worried my black would come off in the water.

I struggled to articulate my experience on campus: what it feels like when I greet members of my athletic team on the street, people I’ve seen every day for the past three years, and they think I’m a panhandler and ignore me; or what it feels like when people shrug as they put their hands in my hair, saying “it’s too cool not to touch”; or what it feels like when white students in my seminars blatantly interrupt, ignore, or try to talk over me when I speak. I knew the white administrators I met with this summer would never know the feeling of the knot that formed in my stomach as a white man violently contorted himself when we passed on the stairs to ensure that no part of him touched me. You can’t know what you can’t see, can you?

I knew the white administrators I met with this summer would never know the feeling of the knot that formed in my stomach when a white man violently contorted himself when we passed on the stairs to ensure that no part of him touched me. You can’t know what you can’t see, can you?

To be a Black woman is to insist on my value in a world that is intent on disabusing me of any notions of self-worth. In Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes, “All my life I’d heard people tell their Black boys and Black girls to ‘be twice as good,’ which is to say ‘accept half as much.’ These words would be spoken with a veneer of religious nobility, as though they evidenced some unspoken quality, some undetected courage, when in fact all they evidenced was the gun to our head and the hand in our pocket. This is how we lose our softness. This is how they steal our right to smile.”

To my sisters, in case no one has told you yet today: I see you. I hear you. You matter. You belong. I stand with you as we refuse to accept half as much.

You first learn that you are Black in a kindergarten classroom. Your friend Shawn opens his eyes and sees you. From head to toe. he asks “Why are you covered in dirt?” You spend all recess in the bathroom cleaning your skin—you, palms full of soap, the endlessly cold water, and a group of boys for whom you have no name other than “friends.” An army of fingernails scrubs your hands until the flesh is raw and pruned. All the life rinsed from the skin. And you still aren’t clean. And you hate the dirt. When your mother sees you that night, she shakes her head at her soapstain of a son.

Boy, it doesn’t wash off. It never washes off.”

***

Upon losing for the fifth time, his frustration evolves and he shouts “Ahhhh you nigger.” There’s a moment of silence, and then a chorus of laughter.

Imani knocked you the fuck out in the summer of 2001. She didn’t really knock you out, but damn near broke your nose in one punch. Maybe something about the sun in the summertime made you think yourself invincible, but something had you believing that these West Philly girls had nothing on you. It wasn’t you telling her she had a nose like a Teletubby that pushed her over the edge. Or that you said she was so dirty that she could fill up a whole trashcan. But once you got the nerve to snatch the scarf from off her head, her tolerance cracked. She had no choice but to become violent, her fist something like the Lord. You run crying to your big sister, who soothes the bridge of your nose with ice and a kiss.

Knowing how a man’s affection often manifests itself, she asks

Aw do you have a crush on her?”

To which you reply

Gross, no.”

***

Come ninth grade, you’ve brought home three girlfriends and none of them have been Black. Your mother always laughs when she sees this and you’re always confused.

You’ll understand someday. What do you want for dinner?”

***

On the second day of Camp Yale, you are playing videogames with some freshmen you’ve just met. You spent such a large part of your childhood alone that of course you are good at videogames. Of course you know better than all these people. Each time you win, they grow angrier and angrier. Eventually, your victory begins to look too easy to one of the players. Upon losing for the fifth time, his frustration evolves and he shouts “Ahhhh you nigger.” There’s a moment of silence, and then a chorus of laughter. He goes on “Sorry it slipped out…it’s just because of where I grew up, you understand.”

In your head you think, it’s O.K.

In your head you think, at least it’s better than the time the lady in the restaurant called security on you because she thought you were stealing from her purse, or the time the girl in high school called you nigger on the dance floor, or the time the teacher spent five minutes talking about how you disappear with the lights off, or the time you got pulled over and the cop took everything but your life, or the time…

It’s O.K. Four years later, he’s one of your friends. Every time you see him, you simultaneously remember and forget this moment. You wonder if he does the same. You wonder if he needs to.

***

You are sitting in a classroom where all of the chairs are much older than you. It is a Monday afternoon, junior year of college. When the professor enters the room, a smile breaks across your face. You are twenty years old and have never had a Black teacher before. The professor looks just like your mother. Not physically, but historically. She walks into the room as if everything is her property. You imagine she has children who are still learning how to love themselves. You imagine the fear she nurses when any of them aren’t inside when the streetlights come on. You imagine her pocketbook is full of green Now and Laters. You imagine she came all this way, all these years, just for you.

You are 20 years old and have never had a Black teacher before. The professor looks just like your mother. Not physically, but historically.

***

The truth of being Black is the knowledge that nothing you feel will ever be the last time. It’s a conversation that will always end in again. Hundreds of Black folk will die the same death, and one of them will shine enough to have a name worth knowing. Again. Black girls will go missing or ignored, and no one will notice. Again. Black women will do all of the work that Black men are too coward to do. Again. White people will go on with their day, take Directed Studies, talk about how complex the race problem in America is.

***

For a while, I didn’t believe in love. I thought love was something that white people invented during World War II. Love was the excuse that allowed them to destroy the world over and over again, and then act like they got a reason to save it. I still don’t know what love is, but I do know what joy is. Joy comes in the brief moments in which there is an absence of fear. It is a crowd of color on Cross Campus when the fight becomes celebration. It is waking up and realizing that someday has come, and you understand more than you did before. It is looking someone in the eyes and finding the God in them, even if that someone is yourself. Maybe it’s just looking someone in the eyes.

***

For a while, I didn’t believe in love. I thought love was something that white people invented during World War II. Love was the excuse that allowed them to destroy the world over and over again, and then act like they got a reason to save it.

When white people talk about freedom and universalities, they can’t mean you standing on your uncle’s feet and dancing to Prince. Or your aunt’s face the first time you take a piece of chicken out the oil and don’t get burned. Or watching My Wife and Kids together on a weeknight. Or your mother rubbing a stick of cocoa butter over your hands in kindergarten and saying “Look at that skin. Look at that brilliant skin.”

As a Black person at Yale, in America, you will be made to feel like the dirtiest thing at the table. But this smile, this love, this joy in spite of it all—it’s ours. And like everything else about being Black, it will be found and felt again and again.

This is dedicated with all the love I have to Black people everywhere, but mostly to all of the Black women whose love I will not take for granted again.

Andalucía has fewer words than I do. One of my professors here tells me English has three or four ways of saying anything in Castilian, Spain’s most-spoken Spanish, the one we speak here, in Granada. Some say the ratio’s more like 2-to-1. The comparison gets harder when you think about all the country’s unofficial tongues—Basque, Catalan, Galician—but going by my five-pound Spanish-English dictionary, the limit’s on the Castilian side. Sometimes I like that about Spanish, that there’s less of it. Madura: it means both ripe and mature, and I like how the word cups all the touchable time, from beginning until the start of decay.

But I’m living in a university city where it took my friend Anabel a five-minute walk to think of more than three ways to say she had sex. First: foyar, to fuck, which young people use. Then the formal ways—tener sexo, tener relaciones sexuales, practicar sexo—which they don’t. Acostarse con, to sleep with, for an in-between. And a few minutes later we had me lo tiré, or me la tiré, depending on the sex of the direct object. That you can say if your friend points someone out in the street. I fucked him; I fucked her. The direct translation is something about throwing him to yourself.

So that’s six. “We are simple, I guess,” said Anabel. In America, we do all of those, besides admit to needing practice. But there’s enough vocabulary that I feel like half of my relationships are spent trying to decide how to classify our sex, if only to myself. We banged, screwed, nailed, made love. I tapped, hit, did. Got lucky, got it on, got busy, got down, got laid. Knew, in the biblical sense. Or him better last year.

***
The Spanish verb for taking a photograph is sacar: to take out or remove. You sacar la basura (take out the trash); sacar dinero (withdraw money); sacar parte del cuerpo (stick out a body part); sacar defectos (show someone the defects). In English, the language is similar—you take a photograph; it is taken. But there’s something about the added out that contributes to the feeling I often have in Granada of reaching for something that isn’t mine to take.

I don’t have the right language for the thing I’ve been feeling lately. It’s attraction, and intimacy, maybe; the word loaded comes to mind, as does potent, or ripe, though not mature.

I will be here for five months, and it’s been two and a half weeks now, only. I’ve had time to walk around with my camera. I’ve been around the Alhambra and the public gardens, with the peacocks; the old Jewish quarter; the white Albaicín. The other day I was following a road that curved along and inside a high school tucked into a hill, in Sacromonte, the sector on the far side of the mountain, where things are more residential. There were a lot of trees, and it was very quiet, and the gates had been open; but at one point there was a girl who saw me through the window of her classroom and I thought, what made me think I’m entitled to be here?

There is a tourist habit that I’ve noticed, and that I have, of visiting foreign countries and photographing doors, windows, and clotheslines. So European, how the bras are swinging around up there, the lace backlit by the sky. How the doors are colorful, and smaller, and the windows have shutters that people actually open and close. The clotheslines are especially exciting, like an open-air gallery where the artist’s intimacies haven’t even been abstracted. Visually, I like them, and I like the doors, and it’s my instinct—American or human, or personal, I don’t know—to claim what I see and like. I can’t help wanting certain colors or angles or gestures for my personal archives, so I have a small sketchbook, too, that I keep with me, especially if I don’t want to carry around my camera.

But it bothers me to see a woman come out of her home and catch me photographing her neighbor’s window, or her cat. Drawing seems better, but I don’t know if it is—better because old people think it’s charming, and that’s validating, maybe; or because laying something down in your own hand automatically denotes a degree of human error. You put yourself into it, you leave something behind. On good days, I decide that’s a compromise—that my drawing something is fair because I’m making something new, that belongs to me as much as it does to the subject I’ve refracted. On bad days, I think maybe it’s worse, that I’m assuming an intimacy that grants me the authority to re-interpret what I don’t understand.

I don’t feel like such a voyeur in America, maybe because there I’m only ever taking what feels like mine. This land is your land; this land is my land. In some defensible way, I’m only claiming what I already have. But Spain does not have these songs, or this sentiment. Or at least she hasn’t shared it with me.

And Granada, la granada, the pomegranate, the last kingdom left un-Christian: she’s the fruit at the foot of the front-right coffin-bearer, opened and crushed and stabbed through by his cross-topped staff.

I took a writing class last semester called At Home in America. We read personal essays and narrative nonfiction, all focused on the experience of being an American, in America. My professor quoted Joan Didion, often. “A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his image.” Then we would go home and tried to lay verbal claim to what we were trying to see.

But now I am in a city in a country that people have been claiming, hard, for centuries. Conquest, re-conquest, inquisition, exile; centuries of constant inter-kingdom warfare. For a language with a third as many words as I’ve grown up with, Castilian has three words to match my “wall.” Pared, muro, muralla—the last one for the sweeping stone encircling medieval towns. You have to enter through an archway on a walled, uphill road—first turn to the right, so an invader’s right-handed sword swing hits wall. I saw one of these archways in Ronda. I took a picture.

And Granada: the Moors’ last stronghold in all of Spain, she finally gave herself over in 1492, the same year Colón gained Isabel’s consent for the conquest I know best. That was a few miles west, in Santa Fe, a town Fernando built to support Granada’s siege. I understood it all better at Colón’s tomb, in the cathedral at Sevilla. Four courtiers, representing his lifetime’s other four Spanish kingdoms, march in statue, each holding a corner of Colón’s coffin. And Granada, la granada, the pomegranate, the last kingdom left un-Christian: she’s the fruit at the foot of the front-right coffin-bearer, opened and crushed and stabbed through by his cross-topped staff. Pomegranates grow on trees here. When ripe, some open themselves.

***
At home, at school a year ago, my friend Jake told me he thought it was sad, the way people hooked up with each other and said it didn’t mean anything. That people got drunk and let themselves be public in their looking for intimacy, and everyone was looking for it, but then you woke up in the morning and nothing was there. I said maybe, not always. A lot of the time people just want that feeling of being wanted for a little. The two are not the same, always.

For a language with a third as many words as I’ve grown up with, Castilian has three words to match my “wall.” Pared, muro, muralla—the last one for the sweeping stone encircling medieval towns.

The other night a guy was walking me home, to the Spanish dorm I was staying at before I moved in with my host family. I started talking to him about a book I had almost packed but didn’t, because there wasn’t space. It’s called I Want to Show You More. I bought it on Amazon a while ago. From what I remember, it’s stories, I think about sex, written by a woman. I trailed off, though, when describing it, because I realized the only reason I was bringing it up was that I felt that way then, like there was more I wanted to show him, and I didn’t think I knew him well enough to tell him I wanted him to know me better.

Show is only half right. It’s a mixture of wanting to give, like give of myself, and show, and share. Express sounds like it should work, but it doesn’t. The word might be reveal, and in a question. How much do you want to see?

In Spanish, conquistar is the verb with which you win someone’s love. There are others—enamorarse con, amelcocharse, encampanarse (this one I like: it also means to become complicated, get difficult)—but conquistar is the one you can do to someone. In my dictionary from 1989, conquistador translates to three things: conqueror; conquering, in adjective form; and lady-killer. And I found one more word for sex: encamarse con—to sleep with someone, though without the con it means instead to fall ill or to be beaten down, like wheat, under wind or rain.

Illustration by Devon Geyelin and Ivy Sanders-Schneider

I have no problem saying a Spanish-dubbed 50 Sombras de Grey turned me on last night—though my learned vocabulary hadn’t yet covered “vaginal fisting”—but I don’t want to be conquered, or someone’s conquest, or even claimed, I don’t think. I don’t have the right language for the thing I’ve been feeling lately. It’s attraction, and intimacy, maybe; the word loaded comes to mind, as does potent, or ripe, though not mature. I understand it mostly as this strange desire to purge. Can I give you my writing? My drawing? My talking? Is it bringing you closer? This weekend there were so many things I had to keep myself from texting him. Thirty-four is Paloma’s lucky number, too. The colors in Ronda are incredible. Are you free tomorrow? I landed on what Simon from Belgium told me in the hostel in Sevilla: During the marathon of Marrakesh they give the runners oranges and dates at the checkpoints. Last night I got home and wrote down that I felt like a bowl of grapes. What does that mean? Purple and wet, and also dry? Tart, suede-skinned? Pluckable?

I don’t know, but now I’m touching my collarbone, and the question is how much he wants to see, and whether that will be more or less in an hour. How much of myself can I give to you? How much will you take?

The woman I’m interviewing reaches across the yellowed plastic table and takes my chapped hands between her own. I’ll call her Lucía. She is middle-aged, with creases around her eyes but girlish dimples on her cheeks. We are sitting in a dimly lit café on the edge of the sprawling slum, or villa, where she lives in Buenos Aires. I have just asked if she misses her home in Peru. It’s June, winter in the Southern Hemisphere, and she pulls her thickly knit sweater tighter around her middle. “De vez en cuando,” (Sometimes), she says. “Do you miss yours?” , I reply. The tip of my nose tingles the way it does before I am going to cry.

I had lasted through only three weeks of classes about Argentinean infant mortality statistics before I quit my study-abroad program in Buenos Aires. Instead, for two months, I walked the city’s narrow cobblestone streets from barrio to barrio. Recoleta, Palermo, Almagro, Abasto, San Telmo. Broad-leafed palms dripping flowering vines. Walls painted with pink and purple nymphs. Parks filled with roses and patchy grass and very small kids who were very good at kicking soccer balls. And everywhere, strange, faded Spanish colonials and tall, quiet apartment buildings whose walls, I was sure, had harbored yesterday’s militants and their torturers.

I made friends in bars, in chamber-music classes, and on the bus. But I had promised my time only to myself, and I often turned down plans in order to sit in hundred-year-old cafes in the late afternoon where the light from stained glass windows cast colored diamonds on the marble tables. Crossing the noisy street near my apartment at dusk, I would sometimes feel a sudden tightness in the pit of my stomach. I was far from home and about to cook another omelet in a dark kitchen alone. But I could shake off my gloom by remembering that here, I had chosen independence. I could transform loneliness into alone-ness.

The days got colder and dusk fell before dinnertime. More and more, my unplanned hours seemed to expand frighteningly. Hoping to feel productive and useful, I joined a volunteer team at an NGO. I would work in the office and, once a week, help give workshops about healthcare and rights to migrant women like Lucía who lived in the villas of Buenos Aires. During my time off, I planned to interview some of the women about their access to healthcare as part of my senior anthropology project at Yale.

On a Wednesday evening, I followed the other volunteers to Lucía’s home in the villa, where we were to lead the workshop. Dim light from an unshaded bulb on the ceiling illuminated the single ground-floor room. Twenty-odd women leaned against stained, unpainted walls or settled on the sunken couch and overturned buckets on the concrete floor. Another volunteer made introductions and began to explain that under Argentina’s Law 25.271, migrants have the right to free healthcare, education, and adequate housing. “But there is discrimination against us everywhere,” a stooped, older woman said, stepping forward. Others said they envisioned a future when making an appointment at the local public clinic would not mean waking up at 4 a.m. to get in line, and ambulance drivers would no longer refuse to enter the villa out of fear. Some nodded along, but most were already chatting amongst themselves and scolding one another’s toddlers. Realizing that it was late and that the group was losing energy, we packed up and promised we’d discuss the issues further the following week.

I shivered as we walked back to the bus stop along one of the narrow, unpaved streets. Dinnertime. The spicy smell of grilling meat mixed with something rotting. A maze of slender buildings, three and four stories, jumbled stacks of colored boxes rising on either side of the road. Young men outside small restaurants blasting music and stands with Quilmes beer signs. Skinny dogs weaving between legs. Dogs sprawled on their sides, rib cages heaving. A woman stepping from an open doorway and slopping a bucket of grey water into the street.

By the time I got off the No. 92 bus back in “the rest” of Buenos Aires, I felt weak. I was safe in my air-conditioning, safe in my clean cotton sheets. But I was sweating right through them. Some roll of the dice had dropped me in the right side of Buenos Aires on a comfortable mattress in a freshly painted apartment. I knew that if I thought about where I had just been I would cry, so instead I thought about what I was doing there. But I was hardly the right person to be teaching these women about their rights in Argentina. I, who could barely remember the names of the Argentinian presidential candidates, who still felt like a third-grader trying to read the news in La Nación and Pagina 12 each morning. And on top of all this, I wanted to take these women’s stories and share them with a few students and professors who spoke a different language in a different hemisphere.

I forced myself to take deep breaths as I sat in the NGO’s office that week, working on posters for our next workshop and researching Law 25.271. Taking the train back to my apartment at rush hour, I couldn’t suppress the sense that everything I was doing was wrong. At night I ate alone so I wouldn’t have to answer my friends’ questions about my work. I was too embarrassed to email my advisor at Yale to ask for help.

I assured my supervisor at the NGO that everything was going well, but when we returned to the villa for our second workshop, I felt the bile rise in my throat. I had woken up that morning with my stomach churning. We were finally here, and the buildings were too close together. Motorcycles, loud bass beats, and human shouts competed in the dark. I forced my gaze down and saw chicken bones in the mud. I pressed two fingers to the pressure point on my wrist to keep the nausea under control as we walked inside Lucía’s house, but the scent of baking bread was overwhelming. As Lucía offered the other volunteers rolls off a baking sheet, I yanked the metal door back open. Hands on my knees, I dry-heaved in the street. Several yards away two men carrying a mattress up a ladder to a second-story landing stared at me. Colorada! they called. Redhead!

I snuck back inside and whispered an apologetic excuse to Lucía about food poisoning. She placed her hands on my shoulders, led me to the couch, and handed me a roll. Lying down and biting into the warm bread, my breathing eased. A middle-aged woman perched on the arm of the sofa and introduced herself as Soledad. She began to rub my ankles. “This is what my oldest daughter likes,” she said. “Does it help?” As the other volunteers hung up the posters I had made listing the clauses of Law 25.271, I stayed on the couch with Soledad. Thinking it was safe to open my mouth again, I asked her where she was from. “Lima,” she said, the capital city of Peru. Now she was Lucía’s neighbor. “Lucía knows all my secrets!” she said in a false whisper. “Last night I came home at midnight and she was scolding me.” We both looked over at Lucía and laughed.

That night I smiled at everyone on the No. 92 bus. Helping to give the workshops and starting my anthropology project were things I could actually do, I realized. With her hand on my ankle, Soledad had given me the care I hadn’t been able to admit I needed

glazer1The next day I asked my supervisor at the NGO for advice on drafting a list of questions for the women who came to our workshops about how they understood their right to healthcare in Argentina. I emailed my advisor at Yale and held practice interviews with my friends. “When did you arrive in Argentina?” I asked a friend as she sat at my kitchen table. “When was the last time you saw a doctor?” “Do you know that you have the right to free healthcare as a migrant?”

Over the next month, I interviewed Lucía, Soledad, and three other women in the café on the edge of the villa. I hugged Soledad when she walked into the café in July. As she sat down, I asked about her daughter who has just turned eleven. “The birthday cake we made was so big that Lucía had to help me carry it!” she said. She asked me how my weekend was, whether I had friends there, or a boyfriend. “No,” I told her, men take too much time. Soledad smiled and rolled her eyes. “Men take time because you have to explain everything to them,” she said. “I know,” I said. “They don’t even understand themselves.” She agreed. “You and I, we see everything. Even what we wish we didn’t!”

In one of my last interviews, I turn on my voice recorder and ask another woman when she came to Buenos Aires, and whether it was hard for her to adjust to living here. She tells me that when she first arrived ten years ago, she cried every day for her mother back in Bolivia. “I cried so much I thought I’d be sick,” she says quietly. She pauses and I don’t interrupt. “You know,” she says finally, “I haven’t talked about this in a long time.” As I settle my elbows on the café table, it occurs to me that as an anthropology student, at least I can give her this. By listening, by trying to understand, I can show her that I care. “I cry a lot here, too,” I say. “But it’s different for you,” she replies, raising her eyebrows. “At least you know you’re going home.”

*The names of the subjects involved in the research project have been changed to protect the subjects’ confidentiality.

 

I used to know two quarrelsome sisters, the younger of whom had a thing about skin cells. When they fought, the older sister’s coup de force would be to strip naked, run into the younger sister’s bedroom, and roll around in her sheets, yelling “SKIN CELLS SKIN CELLS!”

It’s the first thing I think of in the Yale Mammalian Evolutionary Morphology Lab at 10 Sachem Street as Dr. Gary Aronsen, the lab manager, lifts a top-hinged cabinet door and wheels out a table. Much like a hospital bed, the table is covered with a white sheet and has foot pedals at its base: one for tilt, one for height. Less like a hospital bed, its white sheet is weighted by—lo and behold—a corpse, around which is a sprinkling of strings and flecks not of skin but of dehydrated flesh. Runaway specks of what was, in life, a short, elderly Chinese man. His crumbs.

Dr. Aronsen, who is in his tenth year of supervising Yale’s biological anthropology labs, has a mint-condition Jesus action figure in his basement office across the hall. A look at his website suggests he wears mostly cargo (sometimes camo-cargo) pants and muscle tees. His current research is primarily on extant primate ecology and behavior—“monkey business,” quite literally. But he’s very serious about the sacredness of this corpse, this human being, which the lab purchased several years ago as an anatomical teaching tool for classes like “Human Functional Anatomy” and “Mammology.” “I’m going to trust that you’re a good person,” he says before unlocking the laboratory door. Now I’m stuck between a shameful instinct to roll in the grossness of it all (“SKIN CELLS! SKIN CELLS!”) and the keen sense that I’ll be struck by lightning (or a flying mint-condition Jesus action figure) at any moment.

The man on the table has been plastinated; he has undergone a mummification of sorts. His body has been pumped with formalin to halt tissue decay, cut free of skin and connective tissues, dissolved of fat and water in an acetone bath, and, finally, stuck in a vacuum. Silicone rubber has replaced the water and fat formerly in his tissues and organs.

The 1,500-hour, $50,000 plastination procedure was first patented in 1977 by Dr. Gunther von Hagens, who has since gained infamy—and the nickname “Dr. Death”—for serving as the director of the international travelling corpse exhibition “Body Worlds.” Beyond a basic conservative revulsion, critics of von Hagen cite transgressions including a 2009 exhibit in Berlin’s Postbahnhof featuring children, dead embryos, and—positioned in coitus—the bodies of two people who never knew each other in life.

The body on this table comes from a “cost-for-service” plastination lab at the University of Michigan Medical School, which opened after Hagens’s patent expired in 1989. For almost twenty-five years, the lab—one of the only plastination labs in the country—rendered ten to twenty donated cadavers each year into dry, odorless, three-dimensional models for anatomy education. In July 2014, it closed for reasons not publicized.

Looking to the man on the table, I worry that he gave his body to science to escape the grossness of decay. Now, sections of his corpse have been dissected to different depths, in a sort of violent capitalization of his deadness. A visceral cut to the left cheek exposes root-like nerve tangles. The left arm is a meaty hunk of fibrous muscle. A horseshoe-shaped flap in the chest has been sawed with a serrated blade and sits folded over his groin like an apron. The flap is topped with yellow fatty tissue and plastic-bag intestines that add new color and texture to a brown body that is alternatingly wax paper and string and splintered wood and cave rock and packing paper and rope and burnt poultry. And in an act of insufficient modesty, the flesh apron covering the groin interrupts a thigh-bones-connected-to-the-hip-bone rhythm that could otherwise lead a person from this man’s toenails (still attached, still dead), up the tendons of his feet, past a metal shin plate (“Property of Yale University Equipment #170463”) and all the way up to his face. Which is also in layers. One eye is closed and lined with a thin fuzz of short white lashes, and the other socket has been intricately excavated around an epicenter of macabreness: a shriveled eyeball.

Then there are the pieces that have been cut away entirely, and sit on the white sheet to the corpse’s side. A lung. The heart. Half a kidney. Half a skull. The skull is cut at the brow line, its outside covered in peach fuzz and its inside cream-colored. A small cardboard box sits at the corpse’s feet. The box reads, “THIS SIDE UP.” His brain is in there, sitting on a paper towel.

It occurs to me that I could carry this box of brain across the room. I could put the brain on a graduation cap that Dr. Aronsen has positioned atop a steer skull , and I could place the kidney half inside a binder on Formaldehyde Spill Protocol. The skull bowl could go in the sink like a dirty dish, and the heart on one of the paper plates sitting above the cadaver cabinet. I could unpack the man and carry all the little pieces to corners of this lab—sprinkle the room with his crumbs. He’d grow vast with invisible tendons, until everything in the room was within him and between him. He’d be everywhere. A landscape. He’d take up the whole room, and he’d never even know.

He already does.

Madeleine Witt
Madeleine Witt

I’m in Mumbai when Samantha dies, and Siem Reap when I find out. I see it on Facebook, which is how I always learn that an acquaintance has died. It’s 5:00 a.m., and my circadian rhythms are upside down. The air beyond my hotel room window is warm and soggy, and it’s fogging up the glass. The air-conditioning on my face feels like it would be chlorine-blue if I could see it. The room smells like perfume and bleach fumes. I’ve promised myself that I won’t use my laptop first thing in the morning, but it’s my only connection with home and I wake up reaching for it.

The first thing I notice is that there are cryptic little notes sprinkled through my news feed.

Cassandra: Goodmorning @Sam. <3 <3 <3 Thinking of you this morning. I still don’t believe it.

The posts are all tagged like that: @Sam, her name lit up in a luminous blue. Second, I notice the jokes.

Jake: I swear you must have demanded them to bring chicken fries back when you got up there lmao I saw the commercial today and instantly thought “Damm Sam would flip shit!” Lmao miss you boo.

Third, I notice the comments choking with earnestness.

Monte: i just don’t know what to say its just so unreal that another one of my friends have left this earth. I’m gonna miss all the random times Sam would just show up at my house and just take me on one of her random adventures.Through thick and thin i always knew that she would be there. As she would always say to me ” i got your back kid” Truly an angel love you sammy. – @Sam

Fourth, I see photos, like a slideshow at a wake. Hartlie posts one of the two of them in middle school, wearing pajamas, singing into spatulas. Trakiya posts one of Sam in high school, poised to dive down a water slide slicked with baby oil. Sherry posts one of Sam as she was just before she died: twenty-two years old, creamy skin, highlights in her hair, hoop earrings, deep dimples, crooked laughing bottom teeth, wet-looking eyes.

Lewiston, Maine is spilling guts on the internet today, and I want to look away, but I can’t. Some of the most enthusiastic grievers barely knew Sam at all. There’s something inviting about this kind of exhibitionist mourning. I’m halfway around the world, on tour with the Yale Whiffenpoofs, and all I want to do is take part, send something home, a few sad words, wrapped in a comment box. I want to write about how she died so young that now her death will be the biggest thing that ever happened to her. How it will seem like the whole point of her life but it wasn’t, it couldn’t have been. My fingers hover over the keys, jittery. I don’t write a word.

This is not the first time that one of my classmates has died in the few years since I graduated from Lewiston High School. Andrew was the first. He was a giant with a soft, round face. He lived in a run-down complex on Bartlett Street. He had a booming bass voice, and he used to cheer so loudly at football games that the coach would kick him off of school property. When he sang, you felt it rumble in your chest like your body was against a dryer. He wanted to be a singer. The last time I saw Andrew was at graduation. He wasn’t walking, but he cheered from the bleachers. After the fanfare, he walked up to me with puffy eyes, and this goofy swagger like he didn’t have a care in the world. He told me that he was going to take summer classes and graduate within a year. One more year wouldn’t be so bad.

During that year, Andrew overdosed on bath salts. The police said they couldn’t be sure, but we all knew it was bath salts. I couldn’t make it back for the funeral. A few weeks later, I went home and hung out with Cam, who was with Andrew the night he died. Cam was nineteen, and bald. I guess he had started losing his hair in high school, but I couldn’t help picturing it happening all at once during the funeral, falling out in a flurry like down feathers, or Cam pulling it out in tufts.

The second was Dante. He was tall, with an impish smile that showed gaps between all his teeth. He grew up in the Pleasant View Acres project. In fifth grade, Dante and I used to yell “Two Musketeers!” and then press our foreheads together until our brains hurt. In high school, Dante played football. He wore dark purple polos, and these spotless suede Timberlands that were so fly. He went to a state college, but he dropped out after a year, and then he dropped out of contact.

A rusty iron freight train rolls through Lewiston every twelve hours at a speed that seems too slow for a train. It blows a low, whale-sound whistle that used to re-play in my dreams when I was drowning. At 4:00 a.m. one morning, Dante left his apartment, walked downtown, and stood on the railroad tracks. He just stood there, watched the train come, heard the whistle, and stood there.

His brother got a stay of sentence for his misdemeanor conviction to attend his funeral.

Sam was the third to die. I knew her the least well of the three, but it was impossible not to like her. She was loud and friendly, always cursing brightly and dancing in the hallways. She had a semi-ironic obsession with Spongebob Squarepants, and she used to carry around pineapple-house erasers, wear starfish t-shirts, and burst randomly into the theme song in full-on pirate-accent.

I lost touch with Sam when I graduated, and she took an extra year to finish school. I saw her again the November before she died, three and a half years later. We were at the Blue Goose, a bar that’s small and damp and black like a hole in the earth. Sam was drunk. So was I. She had gained some weight. She had a little freckle on her chin that I had never noticed before. She wanted to hear about college. I told her that I was taking the year off to sing with the Whiffenpoofs. I’m always embarrassed to talk about Yale back home, so I added,“That’s pretty pretentious right?” She just called me “kid” in this affectionate way that I’ve only ever heard in Lewiston. She said, “Yeah, kid, but it sounds fun.” She had just enrolled in a local college. She wanted to be a teacher.

At 2:00 a.m. on July 27th, Sam was driving her family’s Ford Focus down Buxton Road, drunk and screaming-fast. She swerved off the road and hit a telephone pole. The Ford flipped and landed on the driver side. The metal scrunched, crushing her in her seat. They closed the road for two hours to fix the telephone pole, and then opened it right back up again.

Life in Lewiston has an undertow of desperation. It’s the kind of small, poor town where everyone’s family settled there in the 1850s to work in the mills, and they’ve all been working the same kind of blue collar jobs ever since. The mills are closed now, so they work in the Tampax factory, or the Country Kitchen Donuts factory, or they don’t work at all. Kids call it the Armpit of Maine, or the Dirty Lew. They dream of leaving, throwing all of their belongings in a mud-crusted Ram pickup and driving south-west forever, but they never do.

I didn’t feel desperation to leave, growing up. My parents moved to Lewiston in the ’90s to teach anthropology at a nearby liberal arts college. Lewiston was their chosen home, so that’s how it always felt for me. But as graduation drew closer, it became increasingly inevitable that I was going to leave (whether I wanted to or not), and that my friends were going to stay, stuck, like in a bad dream where you’re thrashing but something’s got you by the ankles.

Mourning brings people in Lewiston together like nothing I’ve ever seen, though minor league ice hockey runs a close second. Everyone in Lewiston remembers being young and bored and trapped. They don’t just grieve for one person’s death; they grieve for the town, for the kind of place where kids die trying to get out. It’s intense, public, ebullient grief. It’s the whole town in matching white shirts, releasing orange balloons strung with letters to the dead. These kids die praying to break free, but strangely, wonderfully, their deaths draw the community into an even tighter circle.

I mourn vicariously for Sam, through photos on Facebook. I see six tattoos of Sam’s name, surrounded by tropical flowers, on two left feet, one bare chest, one forearm, one shoulder, and one delicate shoulder blade. I see three rear windshield graphics reading In Loving Memory Samantha 1992-2014, with matching decals of Spongebob Squarepants lying on his side, batting long, playful eyelashes like Sam’s. I see two pieces of Sam-inspired jewelry: one locket holding a little bit of a bumper sticker from Sam’s car, one bracelet with an inscription of Sam’s name. And I see one roadside shrine, by the telephone pole on Buxton Road where she died. Stuck in the ground is a makeshift white cross, and above it float two Spongebob balloons. I find six pictures of the shrine, and when I put them in the right order, they make a time-lapse. The balloons drift slowly to the ground, and visitors pile the cross so high with bouquets that you can’t see it anymore.

The summer that Sam dies, I’m on a twenty-seven country world tour with the Whiffenpoofs. We travel to a new city every forty-eight hours, and it’s exhilarating and disorienting. In East Africa, I start pretending I’m sleeping in my own bed. In the Middle East, I turn to Google Maps, and stare at satellite images of my house. I watch Lewiston’s post-crash convulsions from Southeast Asia, plunged in the deepest pit of my homesickness. I want to be there. I want to do something for Sam—something big, like a tattoo, or a bouquet by the cross. Maybe it’s selfish, but I want to be a part of Lewiston’s special kind of grief-celebration.

But I left. I was never trapped in Lewiston, and now I’m gone. This distance has never been more pronounced than when I’m traveling the world with a Yale singing group, stuffing myself into tailcoats, pretending I knew that you were supposed to hold a champagne glass by the stem, or call it a “flute.” The departure has become too spectacular now, too gaudy. Its cuts me off, disinherits me from the right to mourn for Sam and my hometown. What could I possibly say about Sam’s death? What do I know about her life?

I sit on my hotel bed in Cambodia, my face bathing in the laptop’s blue light. The picture’s there, and there’s a freckle on her chin. I’m wondering if this is a silence that will lead me to slip away from home forever. And I’m wondering if it would be too much—or not nearly enough—to break it, and click a few keys.

I’m sorry, @Sam

Or

@Sam, rest easy

 

Nimal Eames-Scott is a senior in Berkeley College.

T-minus three hours. Your alarm goes off at 6:30 AM. You wake up having no idea that today you will watch a woman die.

T-minus two hours. Your residential college’s student council, on which you’re a sophomore representative, is the first to arrive at the tailgate. This is a victory, the chance to pick the best patch of grass. When the party starts, your grills will be prime real estate. You think there might be some advantage to being away from the crowds, but you’re too cold to make this point. The temperature is forty-five degrees, it’s the start of Thanksgiving Break, and you could be in bed under your IKEA comforter, Warmth Rate Four.

T-minus one hour. At 8:30, the first revelers trickle in, drinking or drunk or both. You’ve landed the position of Kebab Czar, so as soon as the grills are fired up, they assault your face with smoke and flood your nostrils with the smell of cooking meat. You don’t mind, because the grills are warm, and the closer you stay to them the less you fantasize about being back in your dorm. By 9:00, your world has become an endless wall of people, a human landscape broken only by the occasional grill or U-Haul. As promised, your tailgate seems to be the epicenter of activity. Drunk and hungry bodies descend on your shrimp and lamb kebobs like it’s their first meal in weeks.

T-minus one minute. At 9:38, someone yells for more hamburger buns. You’re standing near the supplies, so you reach under the plastic table to grab another bag. When you stand up you see a U-Haul truck driving through the crowd. It doesn’t strike you as alarming or even abnormal because this is a tailgate and there are hundreds of people and dozens of U-Hauls.

Impact.

The U-Haul hits another U-Haul.

Time is no longer linear.

You see a body on the ground at the same time you see a woman get hit, and you don’t know which happened first, if you’re remembering or just projecting backwards from the scene in front of you.

Your insides twist violently, like a cloth being wrung out.

The sequence plays again in your mind, rearranged but still scrambled.

The U-Haul blares its horn.

It hits another U-Haul. You see the second U-Haul smash into a third. The sound of two U-Hauls colliding isn’t as loud as you would have predicted.

People run out of the way.

A woman gets knocked aside.

A woman gets run over.

She disappears under the truck and is spit out the back end, flying ten feet and landing on her stomach.

There is a body on the ground.

You see the driver get out of the truck. His face looks like he’s just run someone over. Which is exactly what he’s done.

Other images arrive. There are ambulances and police tape and the crowd has cleared a space. Just moments before there had been countless bodies. Now there’s just one body, and the ground is coated in a layer of discarded paper plates and red solo cups.

You think it can’t be real. People on the other side of the field are still dancing. But there are paramedics and a stretcher. Someone is checking a pulse and a DJ is yelling through a megaphone to keep dancing. He doesn’t know about the body. You wish somebody would tell him. You would tell him, but you feel like you’re underwater. You’re holding your breath. You try to breathe but the air is too heavy. You feel like you’ve taken too much NyQuil. Your mind runs through the same moments on repeat: the truck, the horn, the crash, the body.

A minute passes, or an hour. Other people arrive at the tailgate, wanting to party. Looking for a drink and a good time. There’s been an accident, you try to tell them. “What happened?” they ask. It’s then you realize there are other questions you could ask, questions like what if you had set up your tailgate just fifty feet away, or what if the driver had turned the truck towards you, instead of away?

Your best friend wants to watch the football game. You tag along, but you don’t do much watching. It’s like you’re drunk, only you’re sober. It’s everyone else who’s drunk. A man two rows in front of you moons the crowd.

You can’t stop the reel from playing. The quarterback throws a pass and the U-Haul slams into the parked vehicle. The crowd cheers and her body spits out the back end. It’s all superimposed. Two films at once, one over the other.

The truck hits the woman hits the ground.

At halftime, the commentator announces she’s dead. There’s a moment of silence. A minute, ten seconds, you can’t remember. It’s too short. People shouldn’t be playing football, you think.

Some friends leave the game early to find something to eat. You follow, but food does nothing to relax the knotted sensation in your gut; no amount of mozzarella sticks or cheap pizza stops the procession of images in your head. You don’t say anything because you want to be polite — you don’t want to ruin everyone else’s day, but you wonder why they haven’t thought of ruining yours. “It’s OK,” you would tell them, “I can’t stop thinking about it either.”

This is not the first time you’ve encountered death at school. During your freshman year, a girl’s hair got caught in a lathe. Twelve months later, a boy filled a lab with gas. You read about these incidents in the school newspaper over cereal and orange juice, but their deaths felt distant, diluted. There were already too many degrees of separation for raw emotion. There’s no filter for death that happens right in front of you. No arranging of facts or well-placed quotes from people who knew the victim. Just the immediate flash of sensations. Then the endless repetition of memory. The truck, the horn, the crash, the body.

Eric Baudry is a 2014 graduate of Yale College.

Illustration by Devon Geyelin

I’ve been thinking about mirrors. Mainly, I’ve been remembering that, for some months not too long ago, I took it upon myself to have a strange daily encounter with a mirror, every day except Sunday. Often I’d spend several hours in front of the mirror in the morning, and then again in the evening. I’d go home and eat alone in my bedroom, and I’d fall asleep soon after. I’d wake up and do it again. Because most days looked alike, I have trouble remembering them distinctly. So I was surprised when I realized a few days ago that I had kept this ritual alive for nine months—my entire sophomore year of college.

Mirrors provide us with an overwhelming amount of information about ourselves. That information—the clear and accurate image—is objective, or seems so. What I see in a mirror I take to be true and assertive, and because mirrors communicate with rare candor and immediacy, it’s easy to grow dependent on them. Mirrors show you where and who you are. Think, for example, of the experience of sitting across from a friend late at night, when she’s willing to tell you something about you. Seeing myself through others this way has protected me on many occasions. I am uncertain of myself otherwise. But as soon as I began asking mirrors for something specific that year, the need for information became dangerous. It became a quiet and desperate “I want, I want,” with an immediate response: the clear and accurate image.

I grew up dancing, and I rely on this sentimental-sounding phrase to explain that I began dancing well before I wanted to. For many years I danced as much as I played or worked at school, and when I came of age, I confronted dance as an inextricable part of my sense of self. Dancing places me squarely within my family and its dramas and daily life, because my family is full of dancers. My choice to go to college was, in many ways, drastically alternative. I was raised with the assumption that, someday, I would go on to dance full-time. When I return home, I find the assumption still alive.  Sometimes I think of my time here as a sanctioned, four-year vacation from being who I am. Tomorrow I’ll wake up and remember that I’m actually a dancer, and have been this whole time.

Part of the unique claim that dance has on a dancer’s identity is that, in order to become a good dancer, you must be raised according to its precepts. Most good dancers are children, their skill and talent not a consequence of choice, but of strict deference to figures of authority. And so when parents raise their children, they guide them toward what is useful in their endeavors. When dancers raise their children, they guide them toward mirrors. Nothing is so useful, because dancers use mirrors to understand their work. Terrifyingly, their work is their own bodies. To grow up dancing, I felt, was to learn that being hard-working and self-critical was not a matter of introspection, but one of constantly improving the way I appeared in a mirror.

When I arrived at college, I felt inadequate to my peers, homesick, and incapable of finding my way here. I knew I had come to Yale to find a place in the world, so at the beginning of my sophomore year, I Googled the closest ballet studio and started going every day. Nothing tells you who you are so accurately as a mirror; ballet studios are full of them.

I attended ballet class that year with a newfound desperation. I know this because if I try, I now remember those nine months as one continuous staring into the mirror, a time in which I kept noticing the shortcomings of my own body, and returning my gaze back to the image of my reflected eyes. Because ballet is an exacting art form, it quickly becomes psychologically disturbing, in its recursiveness and in its daily demands. Your leg is never high or long enough; there is always someone better than you. I found solace in looking myself in the eye threateningly, demanding of myself that I work harder. By the end of the year, I had overused my right hip flexor and developed a crippling anxiety problem. I had no idea who I was.

But there are some things from that time that I remember clearly. A dancer’s talent, for example, is measured in two ways: how much physical potential he was born with and has maintained, and how willing he is to grit his teeth and use it well. This appears to be a standard definition of talent, until you hear ballet teachers reconcile the two metrics and reassign students into multiplying categories. There are dancers “with great facility,” but who are lazy. These dancers often look as they should, but remain weak and careless. There are dancers who are “inspiring” because they work hard and “to their full potential.” These dancers don’t have the body to do well, but “love to dance.” Then there are dancers who are beautiful.

So few dancers strike this balance and achieve that distinction. Those who do often acquire an eerie, almost glassy look in their eye. They rarely find their own eyes in the mirror. Rarely do they look you in yours. I think, somewhere along the way, they’ve lost the sense that their bodies belong to them. Obedient now only to music and the direction of their keepers, their every movement is the consequence of a balance serendipitously struck long ago, when they were deemed beautiful children. After growing up disciplined, they earn a career, one in which they are woken up to rehearse, then again to perform. Their artistic skill is called, by many, “interpretive”—that is, at the whim of what they interpret. They work hard, but their work has the look of ritual. Watching those dancers is like watching objects suspended in midair, fragile because they’ll soon fall. Regardless, it’s beautiful. I’m not quite sure what I envied, but I think it was everything.

Dancers are called narcissistic, because they’re obsessed with the beauty of their own image. But beautiful dancers are no longer obsessed, per se; their beauty and talent is the very water they swim in—a banal and constant reality. Those obsessed are those of us in desperate need to see ourselves in the mirror and find the reflection a certain way. Narcissism is hardly the word: there is no erotic interest or latent egotism, no pleasure in the act of reflection. It is, more simply, a consuming aspiration, a sort of unhealthy relationshi—a dependence on a mirror that will never give you what you ask of it. It took me awhile to understand it, but eventually I think I did: it’s the dependency that develops when you love something, and it simply won’t love you back. If you are lucky and beautiful—if dancing somehow does love you back—the mirror is no longer useful to you. You get that look in your eye; you earn a career. Even after you fall and retire, you carry the look with you.

Around that time I decided to become an art history major. The work was a familiar, even convenient exercise, and I wasn’t ready to challenge myself more than I already was. It required looking at images and interpreting what I saw. I was more successful the more exacting I was, the more I demanded out of what I looked at. Most of the time, I neglected that work and performed it on myself instead. Such an intense and sustained look at yourself isn’t healthy; it doesn’t improve you and it isn’t what we’re at school to do. But by nature, I’m a very willful dreamer, and the situation complicated when a ballet teacher told me I had enough talent to quit college and dance full-time. Who knows if it was true—but I looked harder at myself regardless, and willfully called that looking a dream. A few weeks later, I couldn’t move my right leg at night. Sometimes I’d black out for seconds at a time; I think from nerves. I remember now that when I’d return to consciousness, I was usually looking at myself in a mirror—in a bathroom somewhere, or standing in front of the full-length in my sophomore suite.

One day, I did the reading for seminar and found some help in it. It was an essay on Édouard Manet’s “Un bar aux Folies Bergère,” by an art historian named T.J. Clark. Manet paints a barmaid attending her bar. Everything in the painting takes on the quality of a reflective surface. On display and for sale are a bowl of a shining clementines and two roses in a vase, liquor bottles with modern labels, and presumably, the barmaid herself. She shows a patron the fleshy insides of her forearms, and there’s a bunch of flowers collected at her cleavage. She has an eerie, almost glassy look in her eye. We get an overwhelming amount of information, however, from the framed mirror behind her. In its reflection, we see the sheer enormity of the Folies-Bergère—the lurid, electric lights, the hundreds of people, a trapeze artist swinging overhead. Amid the bustle, the mirror also captures a quiet exchange. The barmaid leans forward to her patron, in a delicate performance of femininity and supplication. The reflection shows one barmaid, servile and attentive—and yet her eyes suggest another, hardly servile and hardly attentive. It seems she’s forgotten where she is.

“A mirror is a surface on which a segment of the surrounding world appears, directly it seems, in two dimensions,” Clark writes. “As such it has often been taken as a good metaphor for painting.” The mirror may be a device that flattens, but it never fixes. Unlike painting, the segments of the world that a mirror captures are never rendered permanent. What’s flattened and framed by the mirror is always flickering and variable—subject to immediate and constant change. Clark continues, “there is literally nothing behind the barmaid but glass,” and he’s right. It’s just a piece of glass. He goes on to say that “there is a plain fact of vision somewhere” and, frankly, I wonder where it is. I wonder if, in all its plainness, the fact of vision is ever satisfying.

I kept asking the mirror for the plain and the factual, the immediately satisfying, and it never came. What’s most frustrating now is that, as many times as I looked at myself in the mirror that year, not one of those sustained stares still belongs to me. They’re lost now, or I’ve misplaced them. I have a large mirror in my bedroom this year, but I can’t find them there either, and maybe it’s best that they’re missing. Instead I have a few pairs of ballet slippers left and a drawer of practice clothes. They’re black and well-worn, and I cherish them now as surviving relics from a bad time.

My grandmother and I had a conversation about it all one afternoon, and I cried about it for the first time. She made a few promises: that even though I never trusted the mirror to show me so, that my body is strong and beautiful. She told me that this trouble was bound to come, but that it has passed. She promised that tomorrow I would wake up and remember that I am who I am becoming, and not who I am in the mirror, and maybe not a dancer at all. There was nothing immediately plain or factual about what she said, but for some reason, I’ve been better ever since.